On Saturday night in Sydney, deeply engrossed in a newspaper, I missed my bus stop by a long shot.
I looked up to see a neighbourhood I didn’t recognise so I dinged the bell and was deposited outside a brightly lit Ferrari dealership.
I called an Uber. It found me there within minutes. Being jaded by the extravagant route choices of cab drivers in the past, I insisted my driver use the GPS.
“Ok,” he said broad-smiling and tapped the screen, “but GPS, for all it’s technology, does not have human common sense. Sometimes I shake my head at it.”
I sunk down in the seat and we settled into the usual small talk, his shift hours and workload. I commented on new construction we passed on the site of my favourite old auction house. Sydney is changing fast, he told me. Like everywhere, I said, sounding like a boring old crony.
He was from India, he said, and knew the area well. I looked over and could see even with him sitting down he was small framed, his chin almost in line with the top of the steering wheel.
“Speaking of human common sense,” he said bringing it back to the GPS, “I can’t understand these who go around killing other people… in cold blood.”
Although it’s been on everyone’s mind today it was still an abrupt shift. He’d dovetailed it into the conversation, as if he’d been quietly searching for an opportunity. I recognised the moment that sometimes happens in the driver/passenger relationship, where the banal switches to the deeply personal – the freedom allowed strangers who are trapped in a finite time period together.
I straightened myself in my seat.
“I’m a Muslim,” he said almost as a confession, “and this is not what I was taught as a child.”
I just sat quietly and listened. It felt like he needed to talk. He said he was praying at a mosque in Zetland when he got my ride request. He’d been praying for most of the day.
“These people say they act under the name of Islam. I’ve studied religion, theology. The etymology of the word Islam comes from a word that means Peace.”
He told me how one of his teachers had explained to him that people will angle teachings of the Koran to reflect their own needs. The finance banker will use certain lines to justify his actions, just as the jihadist will do the same. We talked about how many other religious faiths have been exploited too. I looked over to see him wipe tears from his eyes.
“Doesn’t the Koran have a basic law… like the Bible… that says Thou Shalt Not Kill?” I asked.
“Of course!” he exclaimed, “The second highest law says that if you kill a single soul it’s like killing the soul of all humanity. If you save a single soul, you save all humanity.”
We’d reached our destination, just off King St, but still we sat in the car and talked. He turned the meter off. Light rain sprinkled the windscreen as we watched the Saturday night revellers stream across the intersection. It felt like we were two cops, from different walks of life, on a movie stakeout.
He quoted Koran verses often brandished by fundamentalists, robbed of their ancient historical context. We mourned the victims in Paris. We mourned the young martyrs whose minds have been brainwashed. “It appeals to their child fantasies,” he said. We searched for some kind of coda that could send us both on our ways.
I tried lamely with, “Well, it’s just something we all have to accept as part of our lives now.”
“What were your first thoughts when you heard the news this morning?” he asked.
“Well to be honest, even though I knew they were all safe, I thought of my own family. And friends,” I said striving for a better answer. “I felt devastated for the people involved in Paris. But always in a tragedy I feel a kind of worry for my family and friends.”
“That’s a value of life!” he said, “That’s love! That is the only defence!”
We were both okay to end on that. I closed the door of the car and rushed off to my waiting meal with some of those dear friends.
“I just had an emotional Uber experience,” I told them, and my mind kept returning to it for the rest of the night.
Today I didn’t wanna write this as some kind of statement. I just want to tell you about my brief random conversation with a sad Muslim Sydney Uber driver, whose religion is being taken from him.
* Darren Hanlon is an Australian musician. He’s appearing in Sydney this Wednesday, November 18, with comedian Tom Ballard, and touring Australian in December. This post, which has been slightly edited, originally appeared on his Facebook account here.
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